The Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897

Eagle balloon

Join us on Worm’s weekly foray into the more unusual corners of Wikipedia, this week going in search of some sadly overlooked polar explorers…

The Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897 was an ill-fated Swedish effort to reach the North Pole in which all three expedition members perished. Salomon Andrée, the first person in Sweden to fly an air balloon, initially proposed a voyage by hydrogen balloon from the Svalbard Archipelago over the top of the world, which was to pass right over the North Pole on the way. The Swedish government were very keen to promote this adventurous exploration at a time when many countries were locked in a scramble for empire and prestige.

Andrée assured his government backers and an excited global audience that Arctic summer weather was uniquely suitable for ballooning. He told them that the midnight sun would enable observations round the clock, halving the voyage time required, and do away with all need for anchoring at night, which might otherwise be a dangerous business. Neither would the balloon’s buoyancy be adversely affected by the cold. The revolutionary new drag-rope steering technique he had invented was promoted as being well adapted for a region where the ground, consisting of ice, was “low in friction and free of vegetation”.

Andrée neglected many early signs of the dangers associated with his balloon plan. Being able to steer the balloon to some extent was essential for a safe journey, and there was plenty of evidence that his new drag-rope steering technique was totally ineffective; yet he staked the fate of the expedition on drag ropes. Worse, the polar balloon Örnen (Eagle) was delivered directly to Svalbard from its manufacturer in Paris without being tested; when measurements showed it to be leaking more than expected, Andrée refused to acknowledge the alarming implications of this, whether from an uncontrollable ego or a fear of looking foolish to his sponsors remains unknown.

After lifting off from Svalbard in July 1897, the balloon, containing Andrée and two young students, lost hydrogen quickly and crashed on the pack ice after only two days. The explorers were unhurt but faced a gruelling trek back south towards land across the drifting ice.

The three soon found that their struggle across the ice with its two-story-high ridges was hardly bringing the goal any nearer: the drift of the ice was in the opposite direction to land, moving them backwards. On August 4 they decided, after a long discussion, to aim for Seven Islands in the southwest instead. “Paradise!” wrote Andrée en route “Large even ice floes with pools of sweet drinking water and here and there a tender-fleshed young polar bear!”

Polar bear

Two of the men with lunch

On September 12, the explorers found that they had not travelled as far as hoped, and resigned themselves to wintering on the ice and camped on a large floe, letting the ice take them where it would. Soon after, the ice carried them to the small barren island of Kvitøya.

“Morale remains good”, reported Andrée at the very end of the coherent part of his diary, which ends: “With such comrades as these, one ought to be able to manage under practically any circumstances whatsoever.” It is inferred from the incoherent and badly damaged last pages of Andrée’s diary that the three men were all dead within a few days of moving onto the island.

For the next 33 years, the fate of the expedition was shrouded in mystery and the disappearance part of cultural lore in Sweden, becaming the subject of myth and rumor, with frequent international newspaper reports of possible findings.

A norwegian expedition found the remains of the expedition in the summer of 1930. The bodies of the three dead men were cremated without further examination upon being returned to Sweden in 1930. The question of what, exactly, killed them has since attracted controversy among scholars. There is general agreement on many particulars. For instance, the explorers are known to have mainly eaten scanty amounts of canned and dry goods from the balloon stores, plus huge portions of half-cooked meat of polar bears and occasionally seals. They suffered often from foot pains and diarrhoea and were always tired, cold, and wet. When they moved on to Kvitøya from the ice, they left much of their valuable equipment and stores outside the tent, and even down by the water’s edge, as if they were too exhausted, indifferent, or ill to carry it further. Strindberg, the youngest, died first and was “buried” (wedged into a cliff aperture) by the others. However, the interpretation of these observations is contested.

The best-known and most widely credited suggestion is that the men succumbed to (extremely unpleasant) trichinosis that they contracted from eating undercooked polar bear meat. Critics point out that the diarrhea which is its main symptomatic evidence hardly needs an explanation beyond the general poor diet and physical misery, whereas some more specific symptoms of trichinosis are missing. Other suggestions have included vitamin A poisoning from eating polar bear liver; however, the diary shows Andrée to have been aware of this danger. Lead poisoning from the cans in which their food was stored is an alternative suggestion, as are scurvy, botulism, suicide (they had plenty of opium), and polar bear attack. An unglamourous combination favoured by some is simply that of cold, exhaustion, apathy, and disappointment.

In 1897, Andrée’s daring/foolhardy undertaking had nourished Swedish patriotic pride and Swedish dreams of taking the scientific lead in the Arctic. The three explorers were fêted when they departed and mourned by the nation when they disappeared. When their bodies were found, they were celebrated for the heroism of their doomed two-month struggle to reach populated areas and were seen as having selflessly perished for the ideals of science and progress. The home-bringing of their mortal remains to Stockholm on October 5, 1930, writes Swedish historian of ideas Sverker Sörlin, “must be one of the most solemn and grandiose manifestations of national mourning that has ever occurred in Sweden.”


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In between dealing with all things technological in the Dabbler engine room, Worm writes the weekly Wikiworm column every Saturday and our monthly Book Club newsletters.

10 thoughts on “The Arctic Balloon Expedition of 1897

    February 9, 2013 at 10:43

    National brownie points, never a satisfactory spur for derring-do, witness the exit rocks at the foot of the Eigerwand, strewn with stiffs sporting little bits of tattered rope, then those Austrians and Krauts did the business, after that it was personal brownie points, fewer bodies. Well, not that fewer bodies maybe, must have been the conditions, loose rocks etc. It was rumoured that, as the Aryan ones laboured across the north wall’s white spider, as ever a bit tricky, they were hampered by the photos of Reinhard Heydrich stuck to the inside of their goggles.
    The French, being greedy sods used municipal commerce as the spur hence the amount of bung that Balmat and Paccard trousered when they attained the summit of Mont Blanc, Chamonix small business wallahs laughed all the way to the bank as the tourists, Eddie Whymper and Fred Mummery poured in.
    Whymper, a bit of a tosser, famous for being dragged bubbling to the Matterhorn’s summit by the local guides, the Tagwaulders. On the way down he lost a toff and at the press conference down in Zermatt claimed that his spur was the lion of England, hence the next day’s headlines ‘lion seen on the Matterhorn’.

    February 9, 2013 at 11:54

    Too true Malty – I think the British explorers of the Australian outback hold the record in this regard, a load of ill prepared plonkers marching off into the desert with dinner sets and chests of drawers

    February 9, 2013 at 12:52

    Even though I’ve been up there a few times, I have never understood the lure of Arctic exploration. Nor do I recall accounts or diaries that told of anything other than a slow descent into unspeakable privation and depressed madness. There are no summits, no temperate plateaus on the other side, no cool streams to refresh and wash you, no fabled treasures or kingdoms to discover, hardly any flora or fauna to observe and, if truth be told, little of geographic interest. Not even mad dogs go out there, so what possessed them to?

      February 9, 2013 at 22:41

      I have no first hand experience of the Arctic but I found Barry Lopez’s book Arctic Dreams a profound and beautiful celebration of it’s landscape, animals and people. I thoroughly recommend it.

        Hey Skipper
        February 10, 2013 at 01:27

        I managed a visit to Antarctica a year ago. Awesome place to visit briefly, and exit quickly.

        February 10, 2013 at 11:32

        Fair enough, Toby. Lopez was a superlative rhapsodist, although he had the benefit of indoor heating, flown-in provisions and frequent trips back south, and I was really thinking of the old explorers. I suppose they had their rhapsodists too, but so do modern Ironman races and I don’t get them either.

    February 9, 2013 at 13:37

    Then there’s the “let’s not and say we did” approach. The American Frederick Cook claimed to be first to the North Pole and first up Mt. McKinley (the highest mountain in the US). Both claims were soon doubted, and seem to have been false.

    On the other hand, Robert Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole has been put in doubt on the evidence of his celestial navigation notes. But Peary did a great deal of real exploration, and had the lost toes to prove it.

    Peter sounds a little like Jeffrey of the Edinburgh Review, who shocked a would-be contributor by saying “Damn the North Pole!”. I believe that this is remembered mostly because Sidney Smith tried to take the edge off by observing that Jeffrey had been heard to speak disrespectfully of the Equator.

    February 10, 2013 at 02:05

    With whole months of daylight and whole months of darkness, light and time don’t behave the same way up there as they do down here, and this lends a haunting quality to stories of polar exploration. When the bodies are found, even decades later, they are still as fresh as if death had only recently deserted them.

    This story reminds me of Willem Barents’ final voyage (him of the Barents Sea). In search of the North East passage, Barents’ ships became entrapped in the enclosing ice, forcing him along with his men to spend the polar winter on the northernmost point of the island of Novaya Zemlya (74º North). What followed was an extraordinary tale of survival, packed with drama and polar-bear-shaped danger. Although Barents himself was among those to succumb to scurvy on the journey home, of the 18 or so men who had left Amsterdam in the summer of the previous year, 12 managed to return safely to civilisation by November 1597. One of these survivors, Gerrit de Veer, later published his story which can be found here (albeit in French):

    I’m sure there must be an English translation somewhere.

    February 10, 2013 at 02:36

    Thank you all, top commenting here!

    Two great books on this subject are Atlas of Remote Islands and also The Arctic: a history

    February 10, 2013 at 09:23

    “Lead poisoning from the cans in which their food was stored”- this one sounds familiar. Didn’t the same thing happen with the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845? Now that was a very weird event. Members of the team were discovered in a mummified state, laid out in their sled coffins like Viking kings.

    Which reminds me of my prep school geography camp, circa 1977. My physics master, who shall remain nameless, decided to heat up a tin of beef stew, using the tin itself as a pan. I would not recommend this to anyone. The result was carnage. I’m lucky to be still here to write this.

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